The Blackcap Heads North For Winter

The Blackcap Heads North For Winter

Quay lane, Sudbury

It was one of my most memorable local wildlife encounters of the winter so far.
I had just left the Valley Trail and was walking up Quay Lane when I heard a bird singing. It was still and the sky was low with grey cloud. It seemed to me that everything else had stopped, so this solitary bird could let rip.
It was perched high on a bare branch near the tennis courts and at first, I thought it might be a robin, but the song was more complicated – a series of fluting chirps, cheeps and tremolos that filled the air. I edged nearer and looked up, but what sun there was, was behind it, so I could only make out its profile.

Male blackcap, photographed by Bethan Clyne

Late riser
At this point, I must admit that I am a terrible birdwatcher. Most times I miss seeing most of them clearly because by the time I have pointed my binoculars in the right direction, they have flown off. I have a mental block when it comes to remembering different birdsongs and if it is the early bird that gets the worm, despite all the best intentions I usually rise too late to see any early birds or worms!!!
But I am pretty sure it was a blackcap singing away – the silhouetted head tilted skywards, the ruffled feathers around the neck moving with its melody and the distinctive dark tuft on top of the head (of the male) that gives this greyish warbler its name.
I have heard blackcaps before but usually in late spring – their beautiful song leading country folk to label this diminutive minstrel as ‘the nightingale of the north’. Although primarily a summer visitor, I also knew that blackcaps are increasingly spending the winters in the UK. In fact, a friend mentioned to me only days later that he had seen both a male and female (who has a brown cap) blackcap around his birdfeeder. I took that information as an indication that I had not been off the mark when I identified my feathered vocalist.
Changing habits
By tremendous coincidence, a press release about the changing migratory habits of the blackcap dropped into my email inbox in the same week.
It had come from the Thetford-based British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), which in collaboration with Oxford University and Max Planck Institute in Germany, had uncovered some new information about blackcaps.
It has long been known that birds move south for the winter, indeed, those birds that arrive here for the winter months, such as redwings and fieldfares that are escaping the worst of a Scandinavian winter, move south into the UK, while our summer visitors – such as swifts, swallows and nightingales, head south for warmer climes anywhere from southern Europe to South Africa.
As mentioned above, that some blackcaps do spend the winter in the UK is not new information, but this new research has found that they originate from at least seven different countries to the east and south of the UK. Until recently it was thought that our wintering blackcaps had their origins in southern Germany. We now know, thanks to information gleaned from bird rings, that most birds come here for the winter from France, with others from as far away as Spain and Poland too.
The movement north from Spain is particularly intriguing as southern Spain and the Mediterranean coasts are the main blackcap wintering locations. It is thought likely that our increasingly warmer winters and widespread garden bird feeding enable these blackcaps to survive. Access to these resources has provided them with a distinct advantage, enabling them to return to their breeding sites around a week before their southern migrating rivals. This means they might face less competition to find a mate and are able to seize the best nesting locations.
Climate change is a huge worry for how it is forcing animals to change animal behaviours but there is a small selfish part of me that feel if it means there is more chance of hearing the beautiful song of the blackcap to cheer our dreary winter, then at least there are some benefits to be found.

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Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity